Granite Belt: Rock solid marketing

This article first appeared in WBM, 2008
Tyson Stelzer

It started as a crazy marketing idea, but in less than a year it’s transformed wine tourism in the Granite Belt. Visitors are flocking into cellar doors on the hunt for alternative varieties they’ve never tasted before. More wine writers have visited this year than in the past five put together. The region has been up in lights on Landline and as far afield as blog sites in Japan. And, crucially, sales are on the rise.

There’s a buzz of excitement in the Granite Belt, thanks to a stroke of quirky marketing genius that has mushroomed into the single most significant promotional initiative to ever emerge from the region. The Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail is taking alternative varieties to the masses, and it’s capturing the imagination of a new generation of wine tourists.

It all began on one of those afternoons when cellar door sales had been less than enthralling. “It’s hard enough to sell the mainstream varieties, let alone the alternative ones!” bemoaned Hidden Creek winemaker Jim Barnes over a few drinks with Ridgemill Estate’s Peter McGlashan. “No one gives a rats about how many gold medals we’ve won, so we need another hook to get them in.” McGlashan responded that they should come up with something different and, after a few more drinks, coined the idea of an alternative wine trail.

The pair took the concept to the regions’ fifty-odd wine producers, assembled a committee and, with the assistance of the Granite Belt Wine and Tourism Industry Association and a local designer, The Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail was given wings.

It is the diversity of the region that has made a focus on alternative varieties so appropriate. Vineyards in the Granite Belt vary in altitude from 600m to over 1000m, and every site has its own particular altitude and orientation. Ripeness from one end of the region to the other can vary by up to four weeks. And so it is that the Granite Belt is not constrained to one single signature variety. And it never will be.

“You’ve got to know how each variety behaves in your own microclimate and your own soil,” McGlashan pointed out. “It’s all experimentation and that’s part of the fun of making wine.”

Fun to make they may be, but marketing and selling a diverse range of wines has proven to be a challenge for a region that is very much still establishing its identity. Most wine drinkers have never heard of many of these varieties, and are put off simply by the prospect of pronouncing them.

This is why The Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail has been such a success. A tourist brochure was developed with a map of the twenty-one participating wineries, details of the “Strange Bird” wines that can be found at each, and useful information on how to pronounce them, where they come from, what they taste like and what foods to eat with them. The Department of Main Roads agreed to put icons on road signs to indicate the cellar doors with Strange Bird varieties.

The committee selected sixteen varieties as eligible to be included among the Strange Birds, roughly according to the rules of the Australian Alternative Varieties Show, but with one significant discrepancy. “The philosophy with Strange Birds is to promote the lesser known varieties in the region,” commented the region’s most famous producer, Robert Channon. “The hope is that they might become more popular and hence fall off the list.”

This means that Verdelho is ineligible because it is widely planted in the Granite Belt. It is unfortunate that the region’s flagship variety is excluded from its most important promotional initiative. The philosophy also raises questions about other varietals. “There are some in the list that are not regarded as alternative but are just uncommon up here,” explained Barnes. “Colombard slipped through by accident because only one person grows it here. But we have to be careful, because the same approach could be applied to Riesling or Pinot Noir.”

The list of eligible varieties will be reassessed every year according to the number of hectares planted. “Strange Birds can become extinct,” said Barnes. “Our hope is that some will become mainstream and fall off the list while others evolve.”

This philosophy has led some to criticise the initiative as nothing more than a marketing ploy to move varieties that they can’t sell, a suggestion that its initiators are quick to deny. A small change in the rules to a true definition of alternative varieties would not only curb this criticism and circumvent the Verdelho contradiction but at the same time maintain the standard of the varietals that are eligible. The trouble at the moment is that as the current approach plays itself out over the coming years, there is a risk that Strange Birds will ultimately be bound to the poorer varieties in the Granite Belt. Any that achieve any level of widespread success will be destined to be dropped from the list the very next year. When I visited the region, I encouraged its producers to adopt a more global definition of alternative varieties in order to circumvent these problems.

Each vintage, all producers in the region will be offered the opportunity to submit individual wines made from eligible varieties to the committee for consideration for inclusion as a Strange Bird. “We are very conscious of the quality question,” emphasised Barnes. “Wines on the list must be good enough.” McGlashan added. “It only takes one bad thing, and all our work could be washed down the sink.”

This is a difficult balance to maintain in a self-regulated system. The initiative must be inclusive and diplomatic but without allowing the standard to lower. In order to keep the process transparent, all members are encouraged to attend committee meetings and assessment tastings. “We hope that it will be a process of self-assessment,” Barnes said. “We don’t want to have to tell people that their wine is not good enough for Strange Birds. We want them to realise this for themselves and not submit it for consideration in the first place.”

A noble theory, but difficult in practice. “It’s a challenge for the Strange Birds to sort between wines of different quality because there are so many styles produced across the region,” pointed out president of the wine sub-committee of the Granite Belt Wine and Tourism Industry Association and Ballandean Estate Client Services Manager, Leeanne Puglisi-Gangemi. “Perhaps we should simply have all the wines tested, and base acceptance or rejection on the numbers on paper?”

But assessing and maintaining wine quality across a marginal region is never as simple as numbers on paper.

“I say to a lot of people that you’re not getting your vineyards right and it’s showing in the wines,” said Symphony Hill winemaker Mike Hayes, referring to contract wines which he makes for nine companies between New South Wales and the Gold Coast. “They’ve just got to get their vineyards right, that’s the most crucial thing. A lot of people overcrop their young vines, but vines are like children and you can’t push them too far when they’re young.”

A number of initiatives are under way to strengthen quality in the region. Craig Rutledge, Principal Queensland Wine Industry Advisor is busy on a number of fronts but says he would like to do more. He regularly conducts winemaker ‘cluster’ workshops in the region. “We purchase Australian and international wines of a particular style and line them up against local examples. We then bring in a third party expert to talk about the wines and discuss how our wines compare stylistically.”

Ballandean Estate winemaker Dylan Rhymer takes a similar approach on a less formal basis. “There’s not only such thing as a ‘Cellar Palate’ but also a ‘Regional Palate’,” he explained. “We have a rule when winemakers come to dine at our place that they’re not allowed to bring their own wines. We want to encourage others to benchmark with interstate and international standards.”

Last year, Rhymer hosted a comparative Pinot Noir tasting of wines from New Zealand, Australia and France. “We always include a local wine as well,” he said. “We would be tasting our way through the blind line up and suddenly get to an Australian one and go, ‘Whoa! Who threw the Shiraz in here!?’ It’s a great way to put our wines in perspective.”

It’s initiatives such as these that will assist in raising the standard of the region. But, rightly or wrongly, there is still a stigma associated with Queensland wines. According to the father of the modern Granite Belt wine industry, Ballandean Estate’s Anjelo Puglisi, this existed in the past because winemakers have been on a steep learning curve in the region. “There is now a much greater level of technical expertise in the region,” he said. “Virtually every winery now has someone with a good level of expertise making their wines.”

Golden Grove winemaker Ray Costanzo acknowledges that the region is going ahead but “we still have a lot to learn about alternative varieties.” McGlashan believes that it could be alternative varieties that establish the reputation of the region. “A perennial bugbear for Queensland producers is the industry’s reputation,” he said. “Some people don’t believe good wine is made in Queensland. The Strange Bird concept could be quite important in changing people’s minds, and this may be our opportunity to rise above the stigma of the past.”

If the number of visitors that the program is attracting to the region is any indication, this is happening already. “The whole thing has far exceeded anyone’s initial expectations,” said McGlashan.